Law360, New York (October 23, 2017, 7:03 PM EDT) — A California man on Friday became the latest in a string of HIV patients to file suit against Aetna Inc. with allegations the mailings the company sent as part of the settlement of prior privacy-based class actions revealed his HIV status.
Like the others, the California state court suit claimed the letter — a notice of a change in the health insurer’s prescription policies mandated by a February class action settlement — violated his privacy because it was sent in an envelope with an oversized window that left a portion of the text of the letter visible, revealing it was intended for persons who had been prescribed HIV medications.
“By this conduct, Aetna disclosed approximately 12,000 individuals’ HIV status to any person coming in contact with the July 2017 Change of Practice Letter: employers, coworkers, neighbors, family members, roommates, apartment managers, and postal workers,” he said.
The suit stems from Aetna’s attempt to resolve two prior lawsuits alleging the insurer required policyholders to receive HIV medication by mail rather than picking it up in stores put people’s privacy at risk. As part of the suits’ settlements, Aetna agreed to send about 12,000 people letters informing them that they could now pick up the medication in stores.
The plaintiff, identified as John Doe, said the notice was mailed in an envelope with a larger-than- standard address window that left some of the text of the letter visible, including a portion stating the recipient of the letter has been prescribed HIV medication.
“While Aetna has refused to explain to counsel for plaintiff why or how this unlawful disclosure occurred, it appears that Aetna’s motive in sending such a sensitive mailing in an envelope with an irregular, oversized window was twofold: (1) To attempt to avoid the impression that Aetna was required to send the letter as part of a settlement of a civil lawsuit, and (2) To save printing costs,” the suit said.
The suit argued the mailing was a breach of the settlement agreement, which included a clause requiring Aetna to comply with “state and federal law and regulations.” Allowing the recipients’ HIV status to become public violates both the federal Health Portability and Accountability Act and the California Confidentiality of Medical Information Act, the suit said.
The suit is one of several alleging the mailing violated federal and state privacy laws. At least two punitive class actions are pending in Pennsylvania, while another two are pending in California.
Joe Whatley Jr., one of the counsel for the plaintiff, said this case made distinct claims from the others.
“It’s the breach of contract that’s the different factor in this case,” he said. Representatives for Aetna declined comment.
Doe is represented by Joe R. Whatley Jr., Edith M. Kallas and Alan M. Mansfield of Whatley Kallas LLP and Harvey Rosenfield, Jerry Flanagan and Benjamin Powell of Consumer Watchdog.
Counsel information for Aetna was not immediately available Monday.
The case is John Doe v. Aetna Inc. et. al., case number C17-02082 in the Superior Court of California for the County of Contra Costa.